Good News?

Photo by Phillip Smith

This past weekend I was lucky enough to spend some serious time with some very big brains at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism and MIT’s Media Lab as part of their MisinfoCon. There, coders, nonprofit leaders, educators, journos, librarians, and all sorts of interested parties, took three days to chew on the problems of misinformation — a term purposefully employed now thanks to the sudden and explosive irrelevance of the “fake news.”

We were there to advance work that my publication, the Austin Monitor, is leading with our partners at Open Austin, the Nucleus Learning Network, and that is supported by the Mozilla Foundation.

We’re working to arm educators with practical tools and a technology-enabled curriculum wrapped in an active learning approach for middle and high schoolers. This equips those at the root of the issue: future consumers of media. For a summary of our work at MisinfoCon, go here. For more details about the project and to get involved, go here.

We want to go to war against misinformation via strategies aimed at future media consumers. This is an approach we feel is far more targeted — though no more valuable — than efforts designed to stem the currently burgeoning stream of news gone bad.

We weren’t alone this weekend and we were impressed by not just the level of discussion about, well…everything, but the heft of the ideas that came out of our time in Boston. Still, in the wake of it all, a handful of things continue to eat at me as the publisher of a respected, local, online newspaper.

I’ll start with the dollars. We can’t go anywhere without some discussion of media business models and all that goes with the theme. That continues to be a necessity, and the iterations of the conversation continue to be deeply informative.

If I hadn’t already completely made the connection between misinformation and getting the industry paid, I’d made it by early Friday evening. And the idea that publishers’ slow adoption of digital platforms opened up a hole for purveyors of misinformation to climb through is now something I won’t forget. No matter how loudly we boo Emperor Zuckerberg, the industry still has a lot to figure out on its side of the equation. (Duh.)

How does this relate to curriculum that we’re working on? When our group broke out to work on our project, we spent some time thinking about how to focus our efforts in the context of the many different disciplines and approaches represented at the event. Here’s what we landed on:

We are interested in the whole information ecosystem: information literacy, deeper history, broader history, connect to what it is, rather than a reactionary response to sudden interest.

It’s a bit rough. But the basic point holds: if you inoculate a learner with the stuff that will teach them to recognize all forms of misinformation (I must nod here to the excellent chart produced by First Draft’s Claire Wardle featured in that piece), we can short circuit whatever the future holds in that regard. And that’s the point here. We can build a better-equipped reader, one that recognizes the importance of media (in all its forms), not to mention the value of well-sourced, responsible reporting.

It should add to the tech efforts we saw on display this weekend. To borrow a friend’s analogy: It’s great to have a calculator to speed up the tedious math, but we should all still know how to add.

For those of us thinking about revenue, it may also be that the understanding of value we’re after here also helps us earn more subscribers. The education side of what we do at the Monitor is about building better civic habits, news literacy among them. When we are also teaching the anatomy of a good piece, we grab the added benefit that up-close examination of our work will better illustrate its inherent value. That interaction could help us better make the case to future news consumers that what we do is important. That in turn could leave some willing to pay past the variety of meters (local included) we employ to generate revenue.

That, of course, is a very long play from the publisher’s perspective. But it’s an important one with a reach that might fix more than just our business model.

This post has been update to correct a grammar mistake.

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